Leadership Library Review: Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems

May 2018

Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems edited by Phyllis Cole-Day and Ruby R. Wilson (Grayson Books, 2017)

What are the big take-aways?

The beauty of this book is that the editors have taken the time to put together an extraordinary compendium of exactly the kinds of poems that encourage three mindful ways of being that I consider best practices of resilience: slowing down, spending more time with nature/natural imagery, and emphasizing gratitude.

The editors explain (p. 18):

The act of reading a poem – any poem – can…become an exercise in mindfulness. And our experience of the poem is magnified when its subject is particularly mindful.  The poem might demonstrate what mindfulness is, recount an experience of it, or offer advice on how to practice it; perhaps it fleshes out a mindfulness theme, such as acceptance, impermanence, non-clinging (“letting go”), compassion, or the unity of all things.  Such mindfulness poems inspire us to live better, and to make our world better; at the same time, they grant us a taste of being good enough, just as we are, in this world, just as it is.

These practices promote the resilience required to nurture an essential quality of effective leaders, which is the ability to accept reality and to work creatively with “what is” rather than to deny undesirable facts by wishing things were different.

Why do I like it?

I like The Poetry of Presence because some of my favorite poets for leaders are represented in this delectable collection: Mary Oliver (“When I Am Among the Trees”), Lucille Clifton (“blessing the boats”), David Whyte (“Sweet Darkness”), Rumi (“A Community of the Spirit”), Naomi Shihab Nye (“Sifter”), Denise Levertov (“A Gift”) and John O’Donohue (“Fluent”), among others.  Plus, the book includes dozens of poets I’ve never heard of whose work I now adore, such as Richard Schiffman (p. 199):

“Smart Cookie”

            after Wallace Stevens

The fortune that you seek is in another cookie,

was my fortune.  So I’ll be equally frank – the wisdom

that you covet is in another poem.  The life that you desire

is in a different universe.  The cookie you are craving

is in another jar.  The jar is buried somewhere in Tennessee.

Don’t even think of searching for it.  If you found that jar,

everything would go kerflooey for a thousand miles around.

It is the jar of your fate in an alternate reality.  Don’t even

think of living that life.  Don’t even think of eating that cookie.

Be a smart cookie – eat what’s on your plate, not in some jar

in Tennessee.  That’s my wisdom for today, though I know

it’s not what you were looking for.

In what situations would this be useful?

As I’ve mentioned in this blog previously, almost all leaders I know – including those who are simply leaders of their own lives – need to slow down, pause for reflection and ponder the paradox of their consequential insignificance much more than they do.  Poetry is one way to slow down, pause, be present, listen and observe.  Indeed, our call to leadership often comes (formally or informally) as “poetry” from a truth-telling core inside ourselves where our vision meets our unique talents. I have several colleagues, as well as coaching and consulting clients, with whom I regularly trade poems in order to address moments in life when only metaphor can fully capture certain universal, crucial, semi-conscious truths.  As David Whyte says, poetry is “language against which we have no defenses.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For further poetic insights into the mysteries of leadership, loss, hope, denial, love relationships, growth, vulnerability and “beautiful questions,” I highly recommend this stunning interview of David Whyte by Krista Tippett for the On Being radio program: “The Conversational Nature of Reality.”  Also, I found a few more poems by (“Smart Cookie”) Richard Schiffman here, and particularly liked “Alone.”  To hear gorgeous pieces recited aloud by various contemporary poets, check out On Being’s Poetry Radio Project.

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